If you’ve ever looked up at the iconic Empire State Building and wondered which observation deck is truly worth your elevator ride then wonder no more.
In this guide, I’ll be covering all of the main differences between the 86th and 102nd floor to help you decide which is worth your money.
Let’s jump straight in…
Table of Contents
Difference Between the 86th & 102nd Floor
The 86th floor is the main deck and it’s where most people go when they visit the Empire State Building.
This is the observation deck that you may have seen in Hollywood movies like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’.
The 102nd floor is the top deck and it’s the highest point that visitors can go to within the Empire State Building…unless you’re famous (more on that later).
Less people visit the 102nd floor as it costs a lot more and takes additional time out of your day.
Main Deck vs Top Deck Summary:
- The 102nd floor is 200ft (61m) higher than the 86th floor.
- The 86th floor is outdoors whereas the 102nd floor is indoors.
- The 86th floor deck is surrounded by large metal bars whereas the 102nd floor deck features floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
- Window glare can be an issue on the 102nd floor.
- The metal bars obstruct your views (and photos) on the 86th floor.
- The 86th floor tends to be more crowded than the 102nd floor especially at peak times.
- The 86th floor ticket is much cheaper than the 102nd floor ticket.
- The 86th floor is much bigger than the smaller 102nd floor deck.
Insider Tip: Book your Empire State Building ticket on Viator as it includes free cancellation. Tickets booked on the ESB website are non-refundable (both tickets cost the exact same).
As you may have figured out for yourself, the 102nd floor top deck offers higher views over New York compared to the lower 86th deck.
The 86th floor sits at 1,050ft (320m) whereas the 102nd floor sits at 1,250ft (381m) making it 200ft (61m) higher.
The 86th floor is still much higher than most of New York’s other observation decks like Top of the Rock which sits at 850ft (260m).
It’s not quite as high as the observation deck at the One World Observatory though, which is New York’s highest vantage point at 1,268ft (386m).
From both the 86th and 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, it’s possible to see up to 80 miles around and 6 different states on a clear day.
6 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Delaware.
You’ll be able to spot all of your favorite NYC landmarks from up here including the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and even Times Square which is located nearby.
The 102nd floor does give a much better view of Central Park which is difficult to see from the 86th floor.
Other than that, in all honesty, you won’t notice much difference between the views. It’s essentially the exact same.
Verdict: The 102nd floor has a slightly better view.
The 86th floor is an open air deck meaning it’s outdoors and open to the elements.
The 102nd floor, on the other hand, is indoors and completely enclosed by glass windows.
If you’re visiting in the winter or on a rainy day then you may prefer the 102nd floor top deck as you’ll be protected from the harsh weather.
Remember that if it’s raining, you will get wet out on the 86th floor main deck as there is no roof or anything to protect you from the rain.
On the one hand, it’s nice to feel the breeze on your skin by being outdoors but if it’s cold or rainy then you’ll likely not spend much time on the deck.
The 86th floor does have some radiant heaters to keep you warmer during the winter months but it will still be pretty freezing on a cold day.
Verdict: The 102nd floor is better in winter as it’s indoors.
Both decks offer 360-degree views of the NYC skyline but you’ll find that the 86th floor features huge metal railings which partially block the view.
The only way to get an unobstructed photo is by sticking your phone out between the bars but this comes with some risks. You’ll want to cling onto your phone tight to avoid dropping it.
The 102nd floor, on the other hand, features floor-to-ceiling glass windows which provide glorious, unobstructed views of the city.
One downside to the floor-to-ceiling windows though is that it can make taking photos difficult as you’ll often get annoying reflections appearing in the photo.
This issue is particularly bad at night as the glare on the glass makes it really difficult to see out of the windows and you may as well not bother taking any photos.
Verdict: There’s no real winner here. Both have their issues.
You’ll need to allocate more time to your visit if you choose to visit the 102nd floor.
Not only because you’ll be visiting two observation decks instead of just one, you’ll also have an extra queue to wait in.
You’ll likely already have to wait in a long queue to get up to the 86th floor observation deck. This usually takes between 30 minutes and an hour depending on when you visit.
If you also head up to the 102nd floor, you’ll have to join yet another queue.
The 102nd floor is accessed by a one-of-a-kind glass elevator which is exciting but you will have to wait in line to get inside it. This usually takes around 20 minutes.
This elevator is kinda small so it only fits a few people in at each time meaning it can take a while to wait for your turn.
💡 Insider Tip: Visit last thing at night before closing for no queues or purchase the express pass to bypass the queue at peak times.
If you’re just visiting the main deck on the 86th floor, you should plan to spend between 1 and 1.5 hours at the Empire State Building in total.
This includes waiting in line, viewing the exhibits and heading up to the observation deck itself.
If you also want to see the top deck on the 102nd floor, you should plan to spend between 1.5 and 2 hours at the Empire State Building.
Verdict: You’ll spend less time in queues if you just visit the 86th floor main deck.
The observation deck on the 86th floor is much bigger than the deck on the 102nd floor.
Despite being bigger, it’s often much more crowded though. Most people visiting the Empire State Building will just visit the 86th floor so as a result, the deck is packed.
This can make it difficult to enjoy the view. You’ll likely have to wait a while to even get close to the edge.
You may also feel a little rushed when you do finally make it to the edge as you’ll have lots of people behind you scrambling to get a good view as well.
Although the 102nd floor top deck is much smaller in size, relatively few people pay for the upgrade so it’s usually a much calmer and quieter experience.
Of course, there’s no guarantees and if you get unlucky, tons of people may have chosen to upgrade that day and it may be packed.
When I visited, it was remarkably quieter on the 102nd floor and I did enjoy the experience much more for this reason.
Verdict: The 102nd floor is usually much quieter.
86th vs 102nd Floor: Price
As you can imagine, you’ll pay more to access the 102nd floor, but what you may not know is that the price is close to double!
Here’s an overview of the prices:
- 86th Floor – $47.91
- 102nd Floor – $86.02
- Express Pass (86th & 102nd Floors) – $129.56
*All prices include tax.
That’s a pretty steep price increase just to access the 102nd floor which is essentially the exact same view just a bit higher.
One positive is that if you purchase the 102nd floor ticket, it also includes access to the 86th floor so you do get the opportunity to visit both observation decks.
Both tickets also give you access to the museum which can be found on the 2nd and 80th floor.
All in all, you don’t get much extra with the 102nd floor ticket so it’s up to you if you think it’s worth it.
Personally, I think the 102nd floor ticket is way overpriced for what you get.
The express pass allows you to bypass all of the long queues and head straight up to the observation decks. You’ll literally be up there within minutes.
It’s pricey but it will likely save you at least an hour of time (more if you’re visiting during peak times).
Verdict: The 86th floor ticket is more reasonably priced but still pretty expensive.
Empire State Building 103rd Floor
The 102nd floor is the highest point that tourists can visit in the Empire State Building, but it’s not the highest floor within the building.
There is a secret 103rd floor which features a small open-air viewing platform but it’s not open to the public.
It’s notorious as being one of the most difficult places to gain access to in the world. Only a very select few people ever make it up there due to how exclusive it is.
Celebrities are occasionally photographed up on the 103rd floor but it’s unlikely that it would ever be opened to the public due to how small it is.
Additionally, it currently only features a low-edge balcony which wouldn’t be safe enough for tourists.
Review & Final Thoughts
I’ll be honest, the views from the 102nd floor aren’t really any better than the 86th floor. Although it’s 16 floors higher, in all honesty, you won’t really be able to tell much difference.
I also think that the price increase for the 102nd floor ticket is absurd and way overpriced. Realistically, it’s not worth the extra money.
I did, however, think the floor-to-ceiling windows of the 102nd floor were better than the annoying metal railings of the 86th floor.
It’s hard to take photos and truly enjoy the view with giant metal bars blocking your view.
As I visited during the day, I didn’t have too many issues with glare on the windows on the 102nd floor (at night would be a different story though).
I also loved that the 102nd floor was much quieter than the 86th floor, at least when I visited.
The main deck of the 86th floor gets super crowded and I was waiting a good 5 minutes before I even got to stand by the edge and take in the views properly.
The 102nd floor was a much more pleasant experience and it was super easy to enjoy the view without being elbowed every few seconds.
To be honest, most people I’ve spoken to say that the 102nd floor is underwhelming and not really worth the extra money. I tend to agree.
Once you start reading reviews and forums, you’ll find that most people agree that the 102nd floor isn’t worth it and you’ll get largely the same experience on the 86th floor.
To save money AND avoid the crowds, I’d recommend booking the 86th floor ticket and going late at night just before closing as this is when the Empire State Building is at its quietest.
If you really want to go during the day, book the earliest ticket and be the first one up there.
And that’s it!
That’s my comparison of the Empire State Building’s top deck vs main deck.
The Empire State Building is worth a visit but it will set you back a decent amount of cash, especially if you choose to visit that elusive 102nd floor.
Hopefully this guide has helped you reach a decision!